Every movement, whether political, religious, economic or social, hinges on the values of that group and how effective those values are at creating the desired transformation and keeping the movement alive through both good and bad times. Every group has a leader, at some point in time, who best articulates and embodies those values. Such a leader can either create a movement outright or accelerate a movement already begun. In later years that leader is revered and idolized for his accomplishments.
Christianity is such a movement. The difficulty and vision of Christianity are found in the person of Christ. The calling of Christ is to â€œâ€¦take up your cross and follow Me.â€
The 20th Century has been noted for the acceleration of individual rights and individual freedoms. With that movement, whose leaders are you and me, comes a world tailored to the yearnings, wishes and demands of the individual. This movement has important repercussions in how we view faith and the values that faith demands.
As a psychologist in practice for 20 years, I have always viewed wryly my colleagues eagerness to talk about spirituality and their reluctance to talk about religion. Most psychologists view the former as healthy, adaptive and part of the process of becoming self-actualized. Most psychologists view the latter as regressive, reactionary, growth inhibiting and at best, quaint.
All this is to say that psychologists are quite willing to help people apply their spirituality in their own best interests. The happiness and meaning derived from oneâ€™s spirituality is the guage often used by clinicians to measure itâ€™s effectiveness.
So how, then, would have psychologists evaluated poor Martin Luther. Tormented in adolescence, fearing the wrath of God in lightening, he converted to Catholicism and became a priest. But that did not alleviate his torment or his self-loathing. Hounded by guilt he drove himself deeper into his faith. He practiced penance with fervor in an attempt to alleviate his suffering. But to no avail. Ultimately, over years, he stumbled on â€œthe rest of his faith,â€ that is, the glorious grace of God and his all sufficient supply in Christ. He wrote years later:
If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new
heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager
sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.
Lutherâ€™s work transformed Catholicism and Western Europe over the next 300 years. Most would argue that it was an overwhelmingly positive transformation. What if, upon seeing Lutherâ€™s suffering, a friend referred him to a psychologist who respected his spirituality, but did not respect his religion? Chances are, he would, with the best of intentions, undermine a pending revolution in the Christian faith, perhaps driving Luther into individualism, mysticism and irrelevancy.
Religious practice has recently been categorized along these lines:
Protean Religious Practice: involves picking beliefs and rituals from a broad variety of religious and spiritual practices.
Constrictive Religious Practice: involves picking a set of beliefs and rituals from a single authority.
Our hypothetical clinician would likely encourage Luther toward Protean Religious Practice in an attempt to free him from neurotic guilt associated with his constrictive religious practice. In that regard the clinician would be encouraging Luther to make religion â€œin his own image.â€ Luther would be commanding his religion to do his bidding, to escape his suffering. Sit Jesus, Stand Jesus. Good Jesus, Bad Jesus.
But that is not the example of Christ, and it is not the example of his disciples. Neither is it the example of the early church which suffered persecution to assert the dignity of female children being killed in Rome; or who confronted a murdering emperor (leading to the accountability of leaders to God); or institutionalized charitable giving, or contributed to the humanistic movement of the Rennaissance; or who contributed to the education of western Europe through the development of universities. All of this was based upon a constrictive religious practice. Jesus says I cannot choose whom I will love and whom I will not love (protean); the gospel is constrictive, demanding and calling us into the light of accountability: â€œIf you cannot love your brother whom who have seen, how can you love God whom you havenâ€™t seen?â€
Similar challenges face clinicians and Christians as they attempt to understand same-sex attraction. Suffering is part of every Christianâ€™s calling. All of us suffer as Christians for different specific reasons, but for the same single reason, we are sinners, born into a sinful world. We live for a better world to come and endure trials and tribulations for that future reward. Like Luther, I do not understand why I am suffering specifically (except that I am a sinner, in a sinful world) and I do not know yet what plans God has for my suffering (I doubt it will be as constructive and meaningful for the world as Lutherâ€™s suffering). I do know my sins are bold and require His amazing grace. And I am so thankful that nothing bars me from His unending mercy.